Making sense of a Lewis Carroll-esque fish stocking story
Rumors that several key Eastern Sierra bodies of water may not be cleared for stocking in time for fishermen to drop their lines when the season officially opens on April 24 have apparently been borne out of murky, “through the looking glass” comprehension of an ongoing legal battle between the state Department of Fish and Game (DFG) and (among others) the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) over a recently-completed Environmental Impact Report (EIR).
The court-ordered EIR, a joint state-federal document requiring the DFG to evaluate “all conceivable impacts between stocking and native fish, recreation, birds and amphibians,” was turned in and approved by the courts on Jan. 11. It mandates the DFG clear sites for as many as 88 various species statewide.
Though the willow flycatcher has become the defacto “problem child” in the recent controversy, Debra Hawk, Staff Biologist with the DFG’s Region 6 Bishop field office said in a phone interview this week that the CBD’s action involves ALL fish stocking, and never made any specific statement about the bird.
Mono County Director of Economic Development Dan Lyster has had the unenviable job of trying to clear up any misconceptions and speculation, and keep California anglers planning trips here on the hook, letting them know fishing will be as good as ever. At the same time, he’s also been working to calm troubled waters within the fishing infrastructure. Not easy to do, given a gun-shy DFG that’s dealing with a contested EIR and having to conduct field studies to determine if and where the birds may be nesting near local lakes and waterways.
Lyster told Mono County Supervisors on Tuesday “the Department of Fish and Game has been open with what information they can convey.” Things are, he said, “as normal as can be expected for this time of year,” adding that weather would be more of a factor than some waters being delayed in making the clearance list.
“We don’t want anglers thinking, ‘Well, screw it, I’m not coming up.’ We’ll have plenty of fish,” Lyster said. “We’re in better shape than most counties in the state. Ironically, Rush Creek has been cleared and it’s one of the places the willow flycatcher has supposedly been spotted.”
Hawk seconded Lyster’s assessment, observing that some regions are indeed far worse off, with up to 30 species to clear in at least one other region. “Of the seven on our region’s list, we’ve managed to whittle that figure down to just three,” Hawk pointed out, those being a species of frog, the willow flycatcher and Lahontan cutthroat trout.
Still not cleared: Virginia Lakes, June Lake waters, Convict Lake, and Upper and Lower Twin lakes in Bridgeport, as well as local waters in Mammoth Lakes. (Lower Twin Lake is reportedly ice-free, and Upper Twin isn’t far behind.) Reports of waters being pulled from the DFG’s March 29 list, however, appear to be false. The April 8 list has all the same waters on it, and in fact includes two more recently added: Reversed Creek and Ellery Lake, bringing Mono County’s part of the list to at least 30.
Convict Lake, Hawk said, has applied for a private stocking permit in anticipation of stocking by May or June. A required habitat evaluation for the willow flycatcher was set for Thursday, and Hawk stated that if it didn’t happen this week, it would almost certainly be done next week.
“I’m cautiously optimistic … we’re trying to do this as quickly as possibly,” Brad Henderson, an Environmental Biologist in the DFG’s Bishop office reportedly told Lyster. June Lake waters and Convict Lake are both expected to be evaluated by the April 24 opener.
Hawk clarified that three lawsuits have been filed with the DFG, all of them challenging the EIR in its entirety in one way or another. None of the challenges filed involve any specific species. A CBD media release, for example, says its suit is over “environmental impacts of stocking millions of hatchery fish in streams and water bodies every year, particularly the harmful effects on native trout, steelhead, salmon, amphibians and other wildlife.”
Interim District 4 Supervisor Bob Peters isn’t entirely convinced things are any different than they were a couple of weeks ago. “It seems to me [DFG knows] where the willow flycatcher is and if the priorities are to go after those lakes first, why hasn’t [DFG] addressed them first?” he asked. Peters posited that science indicates the flycatcher doesn’t live above 9,000 feet, and if so questioned why Virginia Lake isn’t cleared. (DFG told The Sheet that the flycatcher has been observed nesting at 9,500 feet.)
Peters then queried Lyster whether it would be worth pushing the issue in Sacramento. Lyster said it’s debatable whether that would result in anything effective in terms of litigation. Supervisor Vikki Bauer said she’s seen that type of action backfire before, and suggested focusing in the short-term on the progress being made.
“We haven’t had the communication we’ve needed and now we’re in crisis mode instead of management mode,” Supervisor Hap Hazard observed. Supervisor Tom Farnetti agreed, pointing out that an expected update by Fish and Game in March didn’t happen. John Frederickson, owner of June Lake Marina, was critical of the amount of information being provided by DFG, wanting to know if not stocking the lakes changes the process of finding out what the problem is with the willow flycatcher, and what the connection is, if any, between the trout and the flycatcher.”
Lyster said the study is to detect the presence of the bird, not any specific interaction between them.
Local attorney Kate Maloney Bellomo was curious as to whether any kind of analysis on the flycatcher had been done last summer as part of the EIR, but Hawk said there were no studies done specifically as concerns the willow flycatcher.
District 4 supervisorial candidate Tim Hansen previously said during public comment that he thinks the CBD “doesn’t have the county’s best interest in mind. “We all are [sympathetic to] endangered species, but the timing of [the CBD’s lawsuits] is way off,” Hansen said, a comment Supervisor Hazard jumped on.
“What is the CBD’s ultimate goal vis a vis Mono County? Shutting down stocking,” Hazard said, citing federal court decisions currently being contested by the state. The CDB’s methodology, in his estimation: instigate a lawsuit, get an injunction, strike a deal so they get something out of it and then instigate another lawsuit. “The main fire may have been put out, but CBD is telling the state, ‘We’re still coming after you.’”
Unknown at this point is to what extent the DFG may be working with the Attorney General’s office in defending the agency in its legal battles. Options staff has been directed to explore for the County’s use range from lawsuits, to legislative action, all the way up to the federal level, since this issue, Hazard posited, has national implications. “The CBD isn’t going away,” Peters opined. “We have to do something to be proactive and not be their victim in the future, be it with the willow flycatcher or whatever the next flycatcher ends up being.”
The Feb. 10 CBD media release claims that “Fish and Game has stated it will ‘consider’ not stocking if it believes stocking will have a significant impact,” but Lyster reported that DFG hasn’t told him definitively whether fish stocking would be stopped if a flycatcher habitat is found. He also dispelled another errant report that said reservoirs are being evaluated in the same category as lakes. This, he stated, may be true for some reservoirs along the I-15 corridor south of us, but according to DFG the policy change has no impact on Mono County from Crowley Lake north.